Question: My 6-year-old daughter would like to start riding. Could you give me any tips on how to teach dressage to kids? I want her to develop a basic dressage seat. I do have a small (15.2-hand), quiet warmblood that's trained to Third Level and is also familiar with the longe line. Ponies are also available at our barn. What shows could I take her to?
Asheville, North Carolina
Answer: How wonderful you are starting your daughter's riding experience as a dressage rider. Teaching your daughter a dressage seat from the beginning will give her the basic tools to progress in many equine disciplines. The equitation pyramid found in the USDF Training Manual is a concise guide to developing dressage riders and parallels the Pyramid of Training used for developing horses. The values espoused in the equitation pyramid are interdependent and can be revisited at every stage as you work your way up the pyramid. It's a valuable guide for dressage riders at every level to gauge the quality of their progress.
The equitation pyramid has three phases guiding the rider from the most rudimentary to the most sophisticated understanding of equitation and its impact on their equine partner. Phase I is divided into two stages. Stage 1 asks the rider to focus on "the attitude toward the horse" including the "ethical and philosophical underpinnings of the trainer/rider/instructor and their relationship to the horse." In addition, the aspiring rider is asked to develop "tact and feel" as well as learning the value of "patience, compassion, repetition and understanding" as the foundation of our partnership with horses.
Although they may seem very complex for a child, your daughter could begin to assimilate these core values of horsemanship at the most elementary level. For example, fairness is a subject in which most children are well acquainted, so you could discuss the rider's responsibility to be fair with her mount as the one who is in the position of power. As you start teaching her how to ride you could talk about communication between horse and rider and how her horse receives information through her body movements and voice. Let her try various aids to see what responses she creates, then help her to decipher the horse's response through their body language.
Stage 2 asks the rider to focus on "seat and position through balance, relaxation, poise and suppleness" as well as the "correct and effective placement of the rider's body parts." Riding on the longe line is ideal for helping a young rider to master those skills. There are many resources available (the USDF Lungeing Manual is the one I like) with exercises that can assist in teaching your daughter independent use of seat and leg aids. These can be made incrementally more difficult as her skill level increases.
Usually a well-schooled horse like yours is the best choice, but how your daughter fits on and around her mount is critical for her comfort and balance. If your daughter can easily drop her leg around your warmblood's barrel without popping her knee off the saddle, he sounds like the ideal mount. However, if he is too wide, and there is a safe, educated pony available fitting her seat and leg better, then that would be the preferred mount. An educated school horse that is forward thinking (without being too sensitive), has a modest amount of suspension and can maintain a regular rhythm both on and off the longe line is best for a novice rider. Muscle memory is relatively easy to develop in young riders and is notoriously difficult to change once defensive postures have been established. By starting your daughter at a young age on a kind horse, her seat can be developed without the anxiety that often inhibits a rider's body from following the horse's movement naturally.
The final element of Stage 2 is acquiring a "mind's eye picture and mimicking the best riders." With so many opportunities to watch world-class dressage on DVD and the Internet, this is a wonderful tool for refining a rider's perception of good equitation.
Phase II of the equitation pyramid is entitled "Use of the aids" including coordinating "legs, seat and hands" as well as "weight aids, spur and whip." Once your daughter has adequate control of her aids and is ready to leave the longe line, she is ready to start working on the skills required for this phase of her education. One of my favorite resources is the Practical Dressage Manual by Bengt Ljungquist. A variety of exercises in graduating difficulty are described that assist in learning the use of various aids.
Once the technique of riding dressage has been well established, the equitation pyramid challenges a rider to be a "thinking, feeling rider" who "knows the requirements of development and performance in dressage" and has an "understanding (of) training methods and the effects of various exercises." At this stage, the rider asks "why," not just "how" a particular training method or exercise is being employed.
And finally, Phase III is titled "Artistry and Grace" in which the expectation is "harmony between horse and rider" while "fulfilling the requirements of the FEI and of classical horsemanship." It's important for the aspiring rider to believe that her hard work and dedication could pay off in a partnership conveying these elusive qualities.
Deborah Lockemeyer has earned her USDF bronze and silver medals, as well as the USDF University diploma. She was also awarded the U.S. Equestrian Team (USET) Asmis Grant. A successful FEI competitor, she has studied in Germany with Conrad Schumacher and Ellen Bontje. A popular clinician and coach, she operates Pegasus Dressage Center, a dressage lesson and training facility in Shortsville, New York.